Speaking to The Guardian this week, President Bashar al-Assad spoke volumes
about the much anticipated Syrian-US rapprochement. The Syrians patiently
waited for France's former leader Jacques Chirac to leave the Elysee Palace in
2007, and welcomed Nicolas Sarkozy who showed a desire to engage with Damascus.
That same strategy paid off as they waited for George W Bush to leave the White
House, and are now welcoming President Barack Obama, who has also shown a
desire to engage Damascus.
Assad hoped the Obama administration would get further involved in the peace
process, to restore the occupied Golan Heights to
Syria, and noted: "There is no substitute for the United States."
Earlier, the US had repeatedly refused to support any kind of Syrian-Israeli
peace talks, claiming that Syria was more interested in a peace process to end
the isolation imposed on it by the Bush White House than a peace treaty.
As a result, Syria had to look elsewhere, towards France, Qatar and Turkey,
which mediated indirect talks between Syria and Israel from mid-2008 until they
were called off by Damascus as a result of the Israeli war on Gaza last
In order for any deal to succeed, both the Syrians and Israelis have been
saying the US has to be involved as an honest broker. Explaining Syria's
position, Assad said, "We never clenched our fist. We still talked about peace
even during the Israeli aggression in Gaza."
He then commented on the congressional delegations arriving in Syria since
early February: "Sending these delegations is important. This number of
congressmen coming to Syria is a good gesture. It shows that this
administration wants to see dialogue with Syria. What we have heard from them -
Obama, Clinton and others - is positive." But he warned: "We are still in the
period of gestures and signals. There is nothing real yet!"
The Syrian president's words fall in line with the confidence-building gestures
going back and forth between Damascus and Washington. They are aimed at both
countries meeting half-way, to mend fences that were broken by former president
Bush. Obama had responded positively during his presidential campaign,
promising to conduct dialogue with Syria once he reaches the White House.
Living up to his promise until the curtain fell, he repeated the same promises
after becoming president, and these words were echoed by Secretary of State
In January, a team from the Congress-funded US Institute of Peace (USIP)
visited Syria and met the Syrian leader. It included Ellen Laipson, a member of
the Obama team, and Bruce Jentleson, an adviser to ex-vice president Al Gore,
who said that there was 70% agreement between Syria and the US on a variety of
Middle East issues.
Shortly afterwards, a senior Congressional delegation landed in Damascus,
headed by Adam Smith, a Democratic member of the House Foreign Relations
Committee. In a significant remark before leaving Syria, he also expressed
America's willingness to turn a new leaf in relations with Syria. Obama's
Middle East envoy George Mitchell is expected to come to Syria in mid-2009,
followed by former president Jimmy Carter, who would be making his third visit
in one year to the Syrian capital.
Another senior delegation arrived on February 17, to be followed by a high
profile visit by Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs
Committee, and this weekend, by Senator John Kerry.
Syria's gestures over the last two months have been:
President Assad's congratulatory letter to Obama on his inauguration, promising
cooperation on a basket of Middle East issues, including the peace process.
Back-to-back speeches which appeared on the BBC, at the Doha Summit, and this
week, in The Guardian, stressing Syria's commitment to peace if the US was
serious about restoring the occupied Golan Heights to its rightful owners.
A new approach in the Syrian media towards the US. There are no critical
articles of Obama's America, either in the private or state-run media, and
almost no mention anymore of the wrongs done to Syria by the former Bush
The US gestures have been:
Approving the rehabilitation of two Boeing 747 airplanes on the Syrian fleet,
thereby turning a blind eye to the Syria Accountability Act which prohibits the
American government and companies from doing business with Syria.
Allowing Syrian expatriates to transfer US$500,000 from the US to Syria, made
as donations to a Syrian non-governmental organization called BASMA that works
with children with cancer. This was yet another gesture, showing that the US
can - if it so wishes - start reducing sanctions on Syria, or ignoring them.
But as Assad said, more is yet to be done and these gestures are symbolic,
aimed at testing the waters for both countries, and laying the ground work for
Recommended steps would be:
Start a gradual three stage program to lift the Syrian Accountability Act. The
Syrians realize that this cannot be done overnight, since once sanctions become
embedded into American law, it becomes very difficult to lift them. The
sanctions come in the form of a menu, where sanctions are "selected" by the US
president. Bush approved some, and left others hanging. Step one would be to
start a "de-ticking" process, where the approved sanctions are lifted,
one-at-a-time, to show the Syrians good faith. Eventually, the Accountability
Act will still be there, but it will be a crippled law found only on paper.
Remove Syria from the State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism.
Theoretically this would be easier since it doesn't need Congress, but rather a
decision from the secretary of state in coordination with the White House.
Syria can condition that its name be removed before entering into the peace
talks again, or wait until a peace treaty is signed then automatically its name
will be crossed off.
Send an ambassador to Syria to fill a post that has been vacant since 2005.
Unlike what most people believe, this cannot be done by Obama or Clinton alone;
it needs the Senate which has to date not named a potential ambassador, nor has
it suggested any potential candidates.
Help Syria deal with the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria's territory, and
publically acknowledge Syria's cooperation with refugees and the security
situation in Iraq, mainly border security. Under Bush, the US fully grasped
Syria's cooperation but refused to acknowledge it in public. That needs to come
to an end.
Support Syria's application to the World Trade Organization. It has already
lifted the veto it once had on Europe signing the Association Agreement with
Damascus. That agreement, frozen in 2005, was initialed by both sides last
December and is expected to see final ratification in the first half of 2009,
according to Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah
Initiate an international peace conference, chaired by Obama, to bring all
parties to the negotiating table with Israel in something that resembles Madrid
II. Syria would condition, just as it did at Annapolis, that the Golan Heights
be given top priority. Syria needs the US to broker a deal, but has stressed
that it will not be accepting economic aid from the US, like Jordan, Egypt and
Palestine. Strings come attached with such aid, the Syrians have always said,
and the only requirement would be for the US to lift any kind of restrictions
on Syria to enable investment, since the Syrian market is ripe and remains
virgin. Syria can support itself, through commercial investment, banking,
tourism and technology, and does not need American money.
As for Syria, it can:
Reopen the American Culture Center and the American school that were shut down
after a US air raid on a Syrian town on the Syrian-Iraqi border last October.
Use its considerable influence with Hamas to bring an end to the fissure in the
Palestinian Territories between the Islamic group and the West-backed Fateh
party of President Mahmud Abbas. It has already done a good job at channeling
messages back and forth between Hamas and the Europeans.
Take part in talks with Iran over its nuclear issue after the upcoming Iranian
presidential elections next summer.
Continue to support the political process in Iraq, through Iraqi Prime Minister
Nuri al-Malki who has managed in recent months to restore a certain degree of
normalcy to Iraq. This would require Syria to invest in its strong relations
with heavyweight Sunnis, tribal leaders and former Ba'athists. Results were
clear in the provincial elections, when Sunnis took part, even in Saddam
Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, unlike the elections of 2005, when they
Syrians want to be seen as problem-solvers rather than problem-seekers. They
want to show the world - mainly the US - that just as they can deliver on
Palestine, they can deliver in Iraq and Lebanon. Syria has said these words in
every possible language, and it will continue to show the West that it can
deliver in the Middle East. For years the Syrians have been saying that reforms
cannot be made unless there are no regional and international threats
When regime-change was on the table in Washington back in 2005, reforms were
slowed down on more than one level, politics included. The Syrians always said
that reforms cannot be made only because they are a requirement of Europe or
the US; they cannot be parachuted on the Syrians. If Syria feels comfortable,
as it does now, then the reform process might be given a facelift.
Last week, speaking at the Arab Writers Union Congress in Damascus, Haitham
Satayhi, member of the Regional Command of the ruling Ba'ath Party, announced
that there were instructions to improve relations between the security services
and Syrian citizens. There was a determination to combat corruption and
"achieve more democracy in the political domain".
Satayhi added that a special committee has been set up to study and prepare a
political party law in Syria to allow for more political pluralism, as promised
by the Ba'ath Party Congress of 2005. If anything, this shows that Syria feels
very confident, and is not worried, as many in the Western press had
speculated, about the international tribunal that will begin on March 1 for the
murder of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq al-Harriri.
Back in 2005, the United Nations prosecutor Detlev Melhis had authored a
fascinating report, highly dramatized as the Syrians saw it, to implicate
senior Syrian officials in the murder of Syria's former number one ally in
Beirut. Back then the Syrians were worried that the probe was being politicized
by the US and Europe, to break Syria. That fear has now become history.
When asked about the issue during his Guardian interview, Assad said that he
was unconcerned with the tribunal, fully certain of Syria's innocence. More
reforms and a new relationship with the US mean that 2009 will finally be a
year in Syria's favor in the Middle East.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.